Monday, March 30, 2009

Sunday Reflections for March 29, 2009: "I will write it on their hearts"

(This is not my typical Reflections column which is usually unrelated to my Sunday sermon. I did not write a church column this week as I was on vacation but the following is based instead on thoughts from my sermon.)

"The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more." Jeremiah 31:31-34 (First Reading, Fifth Sunday in Lent B)

Several of my previous posts have dealt with the rapidly declining membership and influence of Christianity and religion in general. Churches, of course, view this as a crisis and for them it is, as they struggle with money shortages and closing congregations. In many ways denominations continue to treat this as the elephant in the living room, with little formal conversation or theological interpretation taking place. The possibility that this trend is irreversable, let alone the consequences, is almost never acknowledged.

I have come to believe that the Bible is more often misread than not (a topic for another post). One thing often missed is a subversive thread that runs throughout its texts which questions virtually all forms of organized religion. An example is this well known passage from Jeremiah. In one fell swoop, the writer looks forward to the day when there will be no need for law or ritual, church or clergy. Formal moral/ethical code? Unnecessary because people will simply know. Religious teachers or clergy? Unnecessary because they will have no God to impart that people aren't already aware of. Why will this happen? Because the traditional methods and forms of religion--the old covenant--just don't work.

One of the things stopping a serious conversation about the church's decline, I suspect, is the awareness that the we can't say what we want to say, which is that people need us. It is now too obvious that people outside the church are generally as moral, adjusted, satisfied, healthy, etc. as people within the church. Indeed, the rise of religious inspired violence globally and of right-wing social and political views among conservative Christian churches have led many to say religion is more of a detriment to society than an asset.

Recent surveys as well as annecdotal experience regularly report that the growing ranks of the nonreligious still believe in some kind of spiritual force, or even god, and often have some kind of spiritual practice. Many express admiration for one or more religious founders or teachers, such as Jesus or Buddah, and have some familiarity with traditional religious texts, like the Bible. None of that, however, leads them to see any need to join a religious organization like a church.

Are such people necessarily wrong? This text from Jeremiah could be read to mean that they aren't. Is it possible that the "spiritual, not religious" shouldn't be ridiculed but may actually signify a movement of humanity in the direction imagined here in Jeremiah? It is can be argued whether people are getting "better" over time. And yet at some level civilization certainly has advanced in its professed understanding of human dignity and equality. We are a long way from paradise but the rise of democratic government, the abolition of slavery, the establishment of the UN, and the movements for racial and gender equity all represent real progress in human relations and humanity's self-understanding.

Historically religion has played a significant part in this development. A selective reading of the texts of most if not all the world's great religions support many of humanity's highest aspirations and noblest goals. But religion has also had a dark side which it has never been able to abandon. It can be partisan, divisive, and even destructive--far too often the cause of humanity's problems as their resolution. Increasingly the quest for humanity's betterment, both personally and globally, is seen running independent of religion, and not infrequently in opposition to it.

The "spiritual, not religious" are implicitly asking what useful purpose religion now serves. That this has not been explicitly recognized and debated is itself, I think, a sign of the self-doubt now present in the church and religion generally. Christianity in its traditional form is fading away. Is this a catastrophe to be lamented or the beginning of a fulfillment of this vision in Jeremiah? Is this a process to be resisted or one to nuture and perhaps guide? Increasingly it seems to me that these are more fruitful questions to be discussing than the form of the next evangelism or stewardship effort. And here, perhaps, in considering the church's future, a portion of the Gospel for this day is also appropriate: "Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat fall into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."

"The Civil Heretic"

The New York Times Magazine has a fascinating piece on science wunderkind Freeman Dyson. "The Civil Heretic" is primarily about his contrarian views on global warming. An Obama supporter and the farthest thing from a right wing ideologue, his scepticism is based primarily on what he believes is inadequite evidence, i.e. science. He acknowledges he many be wrong but unlike the Bushites does provide the basis for a serious discussion of issues. The article is also a biographical essay about a great man. Well worth the read.

I'm back

A week in Las Vegas has meant no blogging but I hope to make up for it over the next few days. I'm still amazed how difficult the Ballagio, our supposedly luxury hotel, made it to access the internet. Free wifi in the lobby but with no place to sit. No wifi anywhere else including its many restaurants and bars or at the pool. In the room there was an ethernet port with service @ $15/day/laptop (and the cable, if you didn't have one, was $13). Nor was wifi readily available elsewhere on the strip from what I could tell. Oh well, enough complaining.

The stock market is in a nosedive this morning over the impending bad news for GM and Chrysler. Again, the ups-and-downs of the markets will drive you crazy if you pay too much attention to them (though it is hard not to). That said, there are still a number of voices saying we are a long way from being out of the woods and there is still not enough being done either in terms of stimulus (especially in Europe) or in restructuring the financial system. Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism draws attention to an article in Financial Times regarding continuing trouble with the banks. One quote:

Even if a recovery were to start early in 2010, as some optimistic forecasters believe, most of the pain of the recession is still ahead of us: unemployment and default rates will rise sharply everywhere. Most of the pain in the financial sector is also still ahead of us. This will feel like a depression long after it has ceased to be one.

In my own congregation I am hearing of reduced hours and mandatory days off. Yesterday a woman told me she lost her well-paying administrative job of 18 years when the company went out of business. An importer of items for fund raising programs, they were unable to get financing to carry them through this lean time. I am afraid this story is being repeated with small companies across the country but with little publicity.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Krugman sounds the alarm

Paul Krugman is really, really upset--and he's not alone. The Geithner toxic assets plan will be announced Monday but details are already available. Read Krugman's take below. As this and the AIG bonuses fiasco are showing, what to do with the insolvent bank, mortgage and insurance institutions is the big issue, more so than the stimulus plan. Krugman thinks Obama could be making huge and potentially fatal (for his administration) mistake here. Hopefully he's wrong--and if not, that Obama is paying attention.

"Despair over financial policy"

"More on the bank plan"

Meanwhile, a cry has gone up (!) for Prof. Krugman to come the rescue and replace Mr Geithner.

But as Calcutated Risk reminds us Krugman himself thinks this is a bad idea:
And for those of you wondering about yours truly — I’m temperamentally unsuited, have never had any desire for the job, and probably have more influence as an outside gadfly than I ever could in DC.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Sunday Reflections for March 22, 2009: "What business are churches in?"

There is a lot of anxiety in the newspaper world these days. Here in Chicago the Tribune Company has filed for bankruptcy and the Sun-Times is tottering. Across the country newspapers are shutting down, reducing publication, going exclusively online, undergoing radical redesign, or in some way struggling to manage an escalating financial crisis through layoffs and other cost-cutting measures.

Many observers are saying all this is too little, too late. The number of newspapers has been shrinking for decades. A century ago some cities had a dozen or more daily papers, often with several in foreign languages. Now many cities have only one. (Growing up the paper our family read, The Daily News, was one of those casualties.) The simple explanation for this is competition. In the 20th century radio and television took their toll as alternative sources of news and information. Now it’s the internet.

Can newspapers be saved? Perhaps not. The biggest problem is the simple fact that putting all those sheets of paper in customers hands or on their doorsteps is expensive. Secondly, more and more of what newspapers tell us can be found more quickly online, usually for free, sitting at our home computer, at the office, or looking at our smart phone. And that last device has become a means of reporting itself by using its built-in camera and blogging and information sharing services like Twitter and YouTube. This is how the world got much of the first news about the Hudson River plane landing.

While the newspaper crisis is an important topic in itself, it has also gotten my attention because of its similarities to the crisis in the church. To put it starkly, we are asking the same question: Can churches survive? The decline of the Church in the United States has actually paralleled that of newspapers pretty closely. In Europe the decline has been even worse.

Why has this happened? It’s tempting, of course, to answer in some theological way, such as that people are more sinful. I think that would be a pretty hard case to make. No, here too I think the newspaper comparison is more helpful. The church is suffering from increased competition. More and more of the services churches have provided can now be gotten elsewhere.

This is a topic too big for a single essay but let me give some idea what I am talking about. For a long time one thing that kept churches thriving in this country was immigration. Congregations helped people in countless ways to make the transition to their new homeland. Here were people who spoke your native language (and cooked the foods you liked). They could help you find housing, a job, a spouse. They helped you in times of crisis. They became your new family.

Today immigrants continue to fill churches but their numbers are far fewer. For most people, the immigration experience is now far in their family’s past and keeping ethnic traditions alive much less a priority. For example, the loss of energy in American Lutheranism has closely followed the loss of importance of members’ German or Scandinavian heritage.

There are countless other changes that have also occurred, especially in terms of the social function churches performed. Frankly, for many people in the past, church was one the few social outlets they had that got them away from work and family. Now we can be overwhelmed by the options. “Church? Well, I’m just not sure I have time.”

But what about the Church’s theological or spiritual function? This, I think, is the most interesting question—and the hardest to answer. One thing the recent ARIS report on religious identity showed (see last week’s Reflections) is that people are not leaving churches for other religions or religious organizations. Where are people getting their spiritual needs met? Asking that raises what I think is now the real question for churches to ask: What are people’s spiritual needs today? Or has that become a meaningless question?

One recent article about newspapers’ problems talked about previous crises various industries have faced. The mistake they all made was being confused about their core business. Railroads, for example, should have realized their business was transporting people rather than running trains. With that understanding they would have begun to expand into the new technology of airplanes and survived the death of passenger rail. In which case, we might be flying Santa Fe to Los Angeles instead of United.

For newspaper companies the key is to understand that making newspapers is not their business but providing news and information. How can they do that now? Similarly I would say churches need to be asking: What is the real business we are in?

Another article that’s gotten a lot of attention is “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” and it makes much the same point. In many places you can substitute "churches" for "newspapers” and you’ve got basically the same story. The author makes the important point that we are in a revolutionary time and as a result the outcome will not be clear for a while. We can’t know what’s going to take the place of newspapers right now—but that doesn’t mean they won’t be replaced.

The clarifying concept, he says, is understanding that “society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.” And that left me wondering what a comparable statement would be for the Church (and for organized religion generally because Christianity is not alone in this). “Society doesn’t need churches. What we need is ________.” Asking this, it becomes obvious Christianity isn't as far along as the newspaper industry in its self-analysis. Instead, we’re still choking on that first statement and can’t get past it.

Are we in the “church business” or is it something else? In the first century Judaism discovered it could exist without a temple. In the 16th century a good portion of Christianity learned it didn’t have to have a pope. Given what’s happening all around us it seems churches too need to be “thinking the unthinkable”. In which case I can't help remembering the words of Isaiah: “I am about to do a new thing . . . do you not perceive it?”

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Thinking the unthinkable

There is a growing discussion in the blogosphere and elsewhere about the newspaper publishing crisis. Newspapers barely surviving are now being pushed over the edge by the current recession. It's certainly an important discussion in its own right but I have also been struck by how it parallels the crisis in Christianity and religion generally. This essay by Clay Shirky has gotten quite a bit of attention because, as its title says, he is willing to "think the unthinkable". In short, newspaper cannot be saved; economically you just can't make the numbers work anymore. As he goes on to say, however, what society needs is not newspapers but journalism. What will replace newspapers? We are in the midst of a revolution, Shirky says, and therefore we just can't know. (While he doesn't mention him there are clear echoes here of Thomas Kuhn.) Shirky discusses the invention of the printing press as a comparable situation to today and the social chaos that resulted, one part of which was Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

There is an important way in which this conversation about newspapers is further advanced than the (minimal) conversation about the fate of organized religion. Where Shirky can say "Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism," the religious crisis can't be comparably summarized. Completing that statment would go a long way towards begining a serious conversation about the future of Christianity and religion: "Society doesn't need churches. What we need is __________." How should we fill in the blank? Until we can think that "unthinkable" possibility we are going to continue to live with our head in the sand.
Shirky's full article is well worth reading.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Book review: "Losing My Religion"

There is a long tradition of spiritual autobiography. Until recently nearly all told a story of coming to God and faith. As his title implies, William Lobdell's Losing My Religion tells the reverse tale. Recently there have been a number of best-selling books promoting atheism or agnosticism and attacking the evils of religion (e.g. God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens). Lobdell's book is different. It is not a polemic but rather a remarkably honest story of his personal spiritual journey from faith to doubt to disbelief.

Lobdell spent many years as a religion reporter for the LA Times and Losing My Religion is the story of how his discovery of religion's unsavory underbelly made faith an impossibility. Reporting on sexually abusive Catholic priests, the bishops' cover-up, and charlatan TV evangelists take a collective toll on Lobdell's ability to either believe in the over-all value of religion or in the God religion claims to serve. With commendable frankness Lobdell details the step-by-step deterioration of his once-robust faith and church involvement.

Losing My Religion deserves a wide reading in the church as it asks all the awkward and uncomfortable questions that are often ignored but are usually just beneath the surface for even the most active members. With church membership falling steadily, Lobdell articulates what is undoubtedly an experience many people can appreciate today.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Modern Christianity? Not so bright

Andrew Sullivan interprets the ARIS results (see March 14 post) for a British audience in an article in the Sunday Times of London. He corrects the common European stereotype of US religiosity: Yes, Americans are more religious than Europeans but the US is certainly not immune from the forces that have been devestating religious involvement in other Western countries. In offering one explanation for the decline of American Christianity he notes its increasing shallowness.
The days when America’s leading intellectuals contained a strong cadre of serious Christians are over. There is no Thomas Merton in our day; no Reinhold Niebuhr, Walker Percy or Flannery O’Connor. In the arguments spawned by the new atheist wave, the Christian respondents have been underwhelming. As one evangelical noted in The Christian Science Monitor last week, “being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence”.

Sullivan hopes for a new Christian "middle way" that recognizes both Christianity's historical limitations and the new challenges of the modern and post-modern world. He gives no indication he expects such a development or has any idea how it might come about.
What one yearns for is a resuscitation of a via media in American religious life – the role that the established Protestant churches once played. Or at least an understanding that religion must absorb and explain the new facts of modernity: the deepening of the Darwinian consensus in the sciences, the irrefutable scriptural scholarship that makes biblical literalism intellectually contemptible, the shifting shape of family life, the new reality of openly gay people, the fact of gender equality in the secular world. It seems to me that American Christianity, despite so many resources, has ignored its intellectual responsibility. And atheists, if this continues much longer, will continue to pick up that slack.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Can this be undone?

A movement is underway in the UK to get some kind of official recognition for those wanting to undo their baptism as a child, including a certificate of "debaptism." This is surely a topic for intense theological debate. Failing that, the BBC has the story.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sunday Reflections for March 15, 2009: "More signs of the end of religion as we know it"

“None.” That’s the identifying label for people in the fastest growing religious group in the country. This is one result from the massive (over 50,000 responses) American Religious Identity Survey (ARIS) 2008 released this week by Trinity College in Connecticut. This is the third such survey, with previous ones done in 1990 and 2001.

Now making up 15% of the population, the “no religion” group is the only one that increased in size in every state and now ranks third behind only Roman Catholics and Baptists. If those who didn’t know or refused to answer the question were added to this group, it would rise to second place. The number of those declining any religious identity has doubled since the first survey in 1990.

The ARIS survey puts hard numbers to trends that have been growing increasingly obvious. Americans’ religious affiliations are changing in a hurry. Some examples:
  • The number of white Catholics is declining, especially in the Northeast and Midwest. Nationally, however, Catholic membership remains basically steady because of the growing Hispanic population, particularly in the Southwest.
  • Evangelical denominations, like Baptists, seem to be declining in favor of non-denominational churches.
  • Mainline church memberships (Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc.) continue to be in near freefall, declining by a third in less than twenty years.
  • In fact, in the time since the first survey no denomination or religion grew by more than half a percentage point. As a result, the number of those identifying themselves in some way as Christian fell from 86% in 1990 to 76% in 2008, with the resulting movement almost entirely to the “no religion” category.

Another interesting result is that the only Christian identities showing any significant increase are those that are the vaguest. Among these are responses like “Christian”, “non-denominational Christian”, and “Evangelical/Born Again.” Groups often thought to be growing (Assemblies of God, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses) actually just held steady, thus growing only relative to other declining religious groups.

And finally, closer to home, Lutherans (of whatever brand) declined by 25% from the 1990 to 2008. This is a little better than the average for mainline denominations but is nonetheless an astonishing drop for such a short period. Some of this decline seems to be among those who had already ceased being actual church members but still identified themselves as Lutheran. Even now the survey reports more Lutherans than are actually on church membership rolls. We might guess that many of these have switched to calling themselves “Christian” or “Protestant”, and some certainly are saying “none of the above.” In any case, this fits with a 30-year decline in official Lutheran denominational statistics.

ARIS indentifies some causes for these trends. The significant drop in Roman Catholics in New England is certainly due in part to the clergy sex abuse scandals. This is very similar to what happened in Ireland. Also, the Northeast now has the largest number without a religious identity (displacing the Pacific Northwest from that spot). ARIS speculates that the drop in those identifying as Christian in New England and elsewhere may be because that label is increasingly identified with conservative political and social views. It has been true for some time that when “Christian” is added to “radio, music, books, lifestyle”, etc. it almost always means evangelical or fundamentalist.

For a number of years, a common view was that formerly “establishment” or mainline Christian denominations were losing members to more conservative evangelical churches. While true in part, this survey confirms that this is only one aspect of a larger trend away from organized religion altogether.

Mainline churches are straddling a shrinking middle ground which, like a fault line, is moving in opposite directions. Increasingly their members either join more conservative churches or stop participating in church at all. These Protestant churches, with their roots in the Reformation, are finding it more and more difficult to make the case for their moderate theology and traditional worship. They’re viewed as too modern for some and not modern (or postmodern) enough for others. And ARIS shows something similar is happening in Catholicism.

For the Protestant mainline these changes are coming with breathtaking speed. Congregations are closing by the hundreds each year. Denominational administrative offices go through successive rounds of budget cuts and layoffs. The current economic upheaval will undoubtedly cause more staff and program trimming in congregations and church bureaucracies. And the traditional model of a highly (and expensively) educated fulltime clergy will likely soon be unsustainable, as rising student debt loads collide with stagnant or declining clergy salaries.

Remarkably little of this is being discussed publicly in these churches, though it is the frequent topic of private conversation among clergy and church leaders. For the moment, the response has been piecemeal and ad hoc, shrinking and closing existing institutions as necessary.

This certainly won’t work indefinitely. The challenge now is to have the courage to honestly admit the new realities. Then, and only then, can the church take up the necessary task of thinking creatively how to reimagine itself for this new time when, for more and more people, religion has ceased to be a necessary or even meaningful measure of one’s identity.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

One of the things I have learned in the past year of economic craziness is a new way of looking at the stock market. In the news and in overheard conversations, there is continuous hand wringing about when the market will "come back." This treats the stock market like it's the patient rather than the thermometer. Getting stocks to go up must mean the patient is recovering, this view believes, when it may well mean nothing of the sort.

No, the market is simply the thermometer. To think otherwise is to act like the child sticking a thermometer under hot water (so they can stay home) or under cold (so they can go out and play). As I write, the DOW has jumped 200 points on Citigroup's report that it made a profit in the first two months of the year. Everyone with any awareness--including most of the people trading today--knows that Citigroup is a basket case and probably will not survive in its present form. That it could show a paper profit (if even true, which is at least dubious given previous bank self-reporting) for a couple months says nothing about it's health, let alone that of the economy as a whole. But for the moment the stock market is a having a burst of "irrational exhuberance."

A term that was heard often from pollsters during last year's election and now from market watchers is "noise." Noise is the meaningless up-and-down movement of numeric measurements. The stock market is full of noise. Sometimes the noise gets loud but it's still noise. We need to stop paying attention to the noise. The obvious message of the market heard above the noise is that the patient--the American, and indeed world, economy--is sick, and probably very sick.

Jon Stewart's rant against CNBC (see below) is part of a growing awareness of the fraudulence of much of the whole personal financial investment and advice industry. For years critics have been telling us that managed mutual funds never equal, let alone out perform, the market over the long-run. Some may have bursts of "luck" but it never lasts, and even then much of the profit ends up in the pockets of the managers. Only index funds come close to matching market performance because by definition they are a slice of the market. They generate very low fees for brokers, however, and therefore get little promotion from them.

Brokers and fund managers make money by buying and selling stocks--not by generating income for their clients. They make money whether their investments strategies work or not. In recent years a great myth has developed that the ever-rising stock market is the place for ordinary people to "make money" or even get rich. The parallel myth, of course, is that housing prices will always go up. The collapse of stock prices is as much the bursting of a bubble as is the implosion of the real estate market.

To keep clients, or to bring them back, the financial industry--and it's organs like CNBC--must now maintain the chatter about the market's return. The anxiety among investors is that they might "miss it" since price recoveries can be as fast and unexpected as this fall's drop was. In reality, however, no one knows and a good case can be made that the market's climb back will be long and slow. A piece in the Financial Times (excerpted here) argues that the world economy has taken a major hit and "bouncing back" hardly seems to be in the cards. Lots of old ways of doing things are not coming back so there is going to need to be a lot of experimentation. If there is one thing Wall Street doesn't like it's uncertainty but that's what we've got in spades.

Ultimately the stock market is a measure of the health of the economy. It can't be anything else. To try to give it a reality of its own disconnected from that will only result in more of the fantasy and fraud that has sent it crashing down around us.

Monday, March 09, 2009

"None of the above": 3rd place and climbing

I've seen this story several places but USA Today has a surprisingly in-depth report. In a broad (35,000 respondents) survey whose results were released today, when asked, "What is your religious identity?" 15% of Americans now respond "None", nearly double the number in 1990. This groups is the fastest growing and now ranks third largest, behind Roman Catholics and Baptists. Perhaps even more surprising, when asked if they believe in a "personal God", 30% answer "No." The survey confirms the trend reported in many other polls that more and more poeple consider themselves spiritual, often still believing in God, but have no affiliation with a religion or worshiping community. One of those in charge of the study concludes from this year's results that in the US "religion has become more like a fashion statement, not a deep personal commitment for many." I'll have more to say later.

Financial euthanasia

In a fascinating behind-the-scenes story, 60 Minutes gets to tag along with the FDIC as it closes Heritage Bank in south suburban Chicago. It's obvious they're very experienced at this.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Credit Crisis--in pictures!

The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.

No one fully understands the credit crisis, of course, but the basics of how we got here are pretty clear. This video is a great presentation of the chain of events that brough us to our current economic debacle. In particular, it demonstrates what the appeal of reckless mortgages was to investors, and the impact of the fatal combination of enormous amounts of dollars overseas (due to our trade deficit) with artificially low interest rates here in the US (due to the Fed's attempt to fuel our faltering economy). If you are a visual/graphical learner, this is especially for you.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Stewart takes on CNBC

In my Reflections post below I ask why we are enthralled with so-called experts. The talk of the journalistic world today is Jon Stewart's eight-minute mocking tyrade against CNBC on the Daily Show Wednesday night. In typically devastating fashion, Stewart unmasks the network as little more than a chearleading squad for Wall Street.

Phil Bunch of the Philadephia Daily News uses Stewart's piece as an example of what journalism could be but rarely is and why main stream news media is fading so fast.

Sunday Reflections for March 8, 2009: "Listening to experts"

Last week President Obama announced his withdrawal timetable for Iraq. All American combat forces will be gone by August 2010, but up to 50,000 could remain through 2011 in advisory and other non-combat roles. Then the US military mission in Iraq will be over.

“Don’t bet on it.” That has been the message of Tom Ricks, prize winning foreign affairs correspondent for the Washington Post. He is traveling the country and giving interviews to promote his new book, The Gamble, which tells about the war in Iraq after the change in tactics under Gen. David Petraeus. Previously Ricks had written one of the most well-regarded books on the first phase of the Iraq war, called Fiasco.

this past week on NPR, Ricks said that he knows of no one in Bagdad who believes the President’s withdrawal timetable will be met. He isn’t against American disengagement—far from it. Rather, he is saying that shaking ourselves loose of Iraq is going to be much more difficult than President Obama, or most Americans, realize.

In Ricks’ view, the American invasion of Iraq was the worst foreign policy decision in the country’s history. And now Obama faces the most difficult foreign policy mess of any new President. If the US were to unilaterally withdraw its forces, he is convinced a genocidal slaughter would ensue. And he is sure we will not allow that to happen.

But however long we stay (and Ricks thinks the conflict is at best half-over), the outcome is not going to be much to our liking. After all is said and done, he believes Iraq is “not going to be a democracy, it's going to have a surprising level of violence, it's probably going to be an ally of Iran, and it's probably going to be ruled by some sort of dictator, some sort of little Saddam.” Despite the President’s best efforts and intentions, “I think Iraq is going to change Obama more than Obama changes Iraq."

And so after years of repeating the mantra “no more Vietnams”, in Ricks view this is exactly what we have accomplished: a war we cannot win and which we dare not lose. His final harsh judgment: “George Bush’s mistakes are something we’re going to be paying for for decades.”

One can’t help wondering about the connections between the “fiasco” of the Iraq war and the fiasco of the nation’s (and the world’s) economy. There is, of course, no one bad guy to blame. Yet it is true that both of these messes have been presided over by a very small and elite group of our nation’s leaders, our “best and brightest” political, military and economic experts. In both of these instances (as well as others, such as global warming), when serious questions were raised about policies and practices, they were dismissed and the country was told, “Trust us—we know what we’re doing.” Clearly they didn’t, but why did we believe them?

Joel Lovell writes a monthly financial advice column for GQ magazine. In an
Op Ed in last Sunday’s Washington Post, he confessed to having a heretical thought when he finished his last column: “There's a good chance that what I just wrote is precisely the wrong advice." He goes on in amazement to identify the countless financial advisers who gave “precisely the wrong advice” over the past year and more, and who still keep giving advice—and who people still listen to!

As Lovell recognizes, the issue is larger than just finance. He wonders why Americans seem so desperate to be told what to do. That certainly appears to be the case, given the number of gurus and advisors on TV and radio, on the lecture circuit, and filling the self-help shelves of book stores. After so many experts have fallen flat on their faces, Lovell says their kind of self-assured directive talk just doesn’t fly anymore: “The advice I trust the most now comes wrapped in doubt. Here's what I'd do, and this is why I think it's right, but I'm not sure.”

Lovell’s attitude fits with some recent studies on the accuracy of predictions and prognostication. It seems there is an almost inverse correlation between the confidence of the person making the prediction and their accuracy. The key factor seems to be that the more the person is psychologically invested in being right, the more likely they are to be wrong. Once such people make a judgment it becomes very difficult for them to recognize new information that may contradict them. They are blinded to new evidence that would suggest they should change their original conclusion.

I think it would be a big mistake to take away from our experiences of recent years that we need to stop listening to experts. What does need to change is how we judge who the experts worth listening to are. Because an opinion or decision is expressed with blustery self-confidence does not make it reliable or right, nor does wrapping it in a political or ideological label.

Our thirst for self-confident advisors may reflect a rise in our own self-doubt. Technology overwhelms us with its complexity. Post-modern life can leaves us questioning our most basic assumptions. But what we often fail to distinguish is the difference between our need for an expert’s information and our desire for a purported expert’s self-assurance.

Ultimately, genuine self-confidence is not the result of having information, talent, or bluster. Rather it comes from a spiritual awareness that life is a gift to which everyone is entitled and it is not a game with winners and losers. We don’t know everything we want to know. We make mistakes. But that’s okay—and it’s true for everyone, everywhere.

And so, paradoxically, self-confidence is born out of an honest and realistic humility. If we have that, when someone tries to boll us over asserting, “This is a war we have to fight” or “This is an investment you have to make” or “Trust me; I know I’m right”, we can respond, “Well, that may be true. But let’s hear what others have to say.” For the biggest lie of the fake experts is that we don’t need, or have the time, to listen to anyone else.

Denominational faucets keep leaking

Here is the annual update on changes in church membership in the US. Once again, mainline Protestant churches have the greatest hemorrhage, but Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics also take a hit. And continuing an interesting trend, the moderate/liberal ELCA and the conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod continue to shrink at the same rate.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Iraq mess far from over

Tom Ricks has a comforting voice and looks like he could work as a department store Santa at Christmas. Despite that demeanor, in his interview on NPR this morning he was anything but calming or reassuring. Ricks is a foreign affairs correspondent for the Washington Post and author of two books about Iraq, Fiasco and his newest, The Gamble. Calling the Iraq War America's worst-ever foreign policy blunder, he nonetheless says it is, at best, only half-over. According to Ricks, no one in Bagdad thinks all US combat troops will be out by 2011 as Obama has announced. Two bracing quotes about Iraq's future:
It's not going to be a democracy, it's going to have a surprising level of violence, it's probably going to be an ally of Iran and it's probably going to be ruled by some sort of dictator, some sort of little Saddam.
I think Iraq is going to change Obama more than Obama changes Iraq.
Bottom line: whatever Obama's intentions, we are still in the middle of a disaster of the highest order.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

"Takeover" or "nationalization"?

(Click on above to enlarge.) I’ve never seen Gallup intentionally demonstrate the limitations of polling. Wording is everything, which we already knew but often forget. It also shows how important education is if the general public is going to have any idea what is going on as Team Obama tries to fix our economic train wreck.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Sunday Reflections for March 1, 2009: "Time for ELCA to find its theological backbone"

Not surprisingly, the ELCA sexuality task force’s recommendations for dealing with gay clergy got a cold reception last week from church conservatives. (For more background, see the Reflections column of February 15.) Two leading advocacy groups announced their intentions to work to defeat the proposals at the August churchwide assembly meeting in Minneapolis. Groups that support removing restrictions on gay clergy voiced lukewarm support.

The task force’s proposal is a convoluted attempt to find a solution which, while no one will be enthusiastic about it, most can at least tolerate. It remains to be seen if they’ve succeeded. In brief, they are recommending what has come to be called “the local option.” Basically this assumes that since the church is so divided on the question, individual congregations, synods and bishops must be allowed to make their own decisions on the matter.

At first glance, this can appear to be a reasonable compromise. But on something as fundamental as ordaining and calling pastors, such a policy could lead to many practical problems and would undermine the church’s sense of unity and common purpose. The Episcopal Church has tried this approach with mixed results. A number of parishes and even a few dioceses have left the denomination. If, as expected, the assembly in August approves removing restrictions on gay clergy in some form, the ELCA’s experience will probably be similar.

The task force’s twelve-page introduction to its resolutions shows the wrestling that obviously went on within the group as it tried to come up with a proposal. They explicitly state that their proposed resolution was supported by a majority of the task force but was not unanimous.

There is a revealing statement in the task force’s document about the larger problem they struggled with in preparing their report:

Therefore, the task force believes this church must seek a common way to live and serve in the midst of disagreements. The areas of disagreement include: 1) the understanding of the nature of sin, the means of determining what behavior is sinful, and the ways in which this church can best address the problem of sin; 2) the interpretation of the Bible, including not only the contemporary meaning of particular passages, but also how the Bible guides our lives; 3) the determination of what will be best for people who have a definite orientation toward others of the same gender; 4) whether and how social and biological sciences inform us in matters of moral judgment; 5) the best way to serve the mission of God through this church; and 6) the level of disagreement the ELCA can bear.

The task force should be commended for its candor. If true, however, this assessment is a devastating critique of the state of the ELCA. Some of the issues they have identified (especially 1 & 2) are so fundamental as to question how it can function as a church. And maybe that is exactly the point. If the ELCA is divided on such basic questions, what is holding it together, and why?
The ELCA is not a fundamentalist denomination but it does have some very conservative members. To avoid offending them, the church has often avoided challenging issues and subjects.

In my first congregation we had a seminary professor come and lead an adult class on Genesis. At the second or third session one member went ballistic over the professor saying that the Genesis creation stories shouldn’t be taken literally. He quit the class and eventually the congregation to join a Bible church.

The incident was certainly unpleasant for everyone else (the man was nearly screaming at one point) but they all continued on and appreciated the professor’s presentation. To avoid offending this one person, should the class not have been offered? While peace and harmony are certainly important they can’t come at the price of being honest about our identity, or of having any identity at all.

A major cause of the impasse on this and other issues has been a failure of church leadership. For over a half-century there has been a basic consensus within moderate ecumenical churches, like the ELCA, on how to read and interpret the Bible within the context of the modern world. The colleges and seminaries of these churches have taught the historical limitations of the Bible and given their students the tools to interpret it in the very different world that we live in today.

In their training, every pastor learns and struggles with the fact that one can’t simply say, “The Bible says x, y or z” on some topic and let it go at that. Everything the Bible says is historically conditioned and has to be interpreted and evaluated. Thus slavery, an institution taken for granted and even supported in the Bible, was later judged immoral by the church. Similarly churches rejected the ancient tradition of an all male clergy and decided there was no justifiable reason to exclude women.

Nonetheless, in their preaching and teaching, pastors often hesitate to talk about the Bible in the ways they themselves were taught. Primarily this is out of a fear of upsetting “the people in the pews” with ideas that challenge the understanding of the Bible that they probably got in Sunday school. Bishops counsel young pastors to be careful using their seminary education in their congregations. Educational materials for children and adults tip-toe carefully in talking about the Bible in any way that implies it isn’t all literally true.

As my Genesis class demonstrated, some people can get very upset by looking at the Bible in a more critical way. Fears of such incidents have led countless churches and pastors to avoid such approaches altogether. As a result, church members are unequipped to use the Bible in dealing with the difficult and complicated challenges of modern life. They often feel like bewildered bystanders to controversies like the evolution vs. creationism debate. And it should come as no surprise that within the church issues like homosexuality become hopelessly tangled conundrums.

We are now harvesting the fruit of decades of theological cowardice. In chasing after mythical goals of “Lutheran unity” and church harmony we dropped the far more important values of relevance, honesty and integrity. The challenge now is for church leaders to find the courage to say what they actually believe and teach what they know to be true.

I believe the ELCA can and will come to an honest and positive resolution to this issue. Doing so will likely antagonize some members and congregations and some may choose to leave the denomination. Obviously, this would not be the objective. It may, however, be the inevitable cost for creating a clearer sense of purpose and identity. In the end, making a difficult decision, believing it was right, and accepting its cost, will strengthen the ELCA and create a stronger commitment to its mission and ministry.